Will Incremental Online Enrollments of Working Adult Students Bail Out Higher Ed?

I continue to read articles and hear statements from enthusiastic college presidents and provosts who believe that their traditional student enrollment declines can be offset by enrolling working adult students in online courses and programs that were developed during Covid. Frequently, the 39 million Americans with no degree who have completed some college courses are cited as the fertile target market.

I believe that a very small percentage of the 39 million Americans with some college credit will return to college. I frequently cite the Virginia Community College System study that looked at non-degree completers with 45 credit hours or more (>75 percent completed) whose researchers estimated that as few as five percent of those individuals would return to college. If that’s the case for students who completed all but 15 credit hours, I doubt that the overall returning percentage is more for adults who completed less than 75 percent. Since those researchers plan to conduct more research to seek more detailed reasons why few dropouts return to college, I decided to take another approach to demonstrating that it will be difficult to penetrate the market for online working adult students.

I began by reviewing data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) that indicated the relative popularity of bachelor’s degree programs. According to NCES, of the 2.0 million bachelor’s degrees awarded between 2019-20, 58 percent were concentrated in six fields of study: business (387,900), health professions and related (257,300), social sciences and history (161,200), engineering (128,300), biological and biomedical sciences (126,600), and psychology (120,000).

Common specializations in business degrees are accounting, business administration, communication, management, entrepreneurship, finance, international business, and marketing. I decided to create a simple spreadsheet of search engine results on Google for each of these concentrations. My search term was generally in this format: Online business administration bachelor’s degrees.

In the table below, I have listed all the above concentrations in bachelor’s business degree programs and the results that I received using Google as my search engine. I ranked them from 1 through 10 and noted if they were paid search or organic search results. Typically, Google lists the first four paid search results at the top of each page followed by organic search results. If you go to page two, you will find four more paid search results followed by more organic search results. I left out paid or organic search results for sites like Best Colleges and US News Rankings since they list multiple colleges and universities on their site and not a single university. For that reason, occasionally, I found that there were only paid search results in the top 10 because the only organic results were these ratings sites. I note that since I conducted my search from Austin, TX, the geographic targeting allowed by Google may have influenced the search results. Someone searching in New York or California or Florida may have gotten totally different results.


Concentration University Paid/Organic Ranking
Bus. Administration University of Louisville Paid 1
Strayer University Paid 2
Northern Kentucky University Paid 3
Virginia Wesleyan University Paid 4
Southern New Hampshire University Organic 5
University of Florida Organic 6
Western Governors University Organic 7
Purdue Global University Organic 8
UNC Greensboro Organic 9
Devry University Organic 10
Accounting University of Phoenix Paid 1
Western Governors University Paid 2
Capella University Paid 3
Post University Paid 4
American Public University Paid 5
Colorado State University Global Paid 6
Northwest Missouri State Paid 7
Walden University Paid 8
Southern New Hampshire University Organic 9
Western Governors University Organic 10
Communication Maryville University Paid 1
University of Phoenix Paid 2
Regent University Paid 3
University of Cincinnati Paid 4
Arizona State University Online Organic 5
Southern New Hampshire University Organic 6
Purdue Global University Organic 7
UT San Antonio Organic 8
Drexel University Organic 9
Johns Hopkins University Paid 10
Management Purdue Global University Paid 1
Carlow University Paid 2
University of Phoenix Paid 3
University of Louisville Paid 4
Western Governors University Organic 5
Devry University Organic 6
Southern New Hampshire University Organic 7
Arizona State University Online Organic 8
Oregon State University Organic 9
University of Toledo Organic 10
Entrepreneurship Pepperdine University Paid 1
University of Phoenix Paid 2
Western Governors University Paid 3
University of Louisville Paid 4
Southern New Hampshire University Organic 5
Franklin University Organic 6
American Public University Organic 7
UNC Greensboro Organic 8
Louisiana State University Paid 9
Johnson & Wales University Paid 10
Finance University of Arizona Global Paid 1
Lamar University Paid 2
Keiser University Paid 3
University of Maryland Global Paid 4
Strayer University Paid 5
Maryville University Paid 6
Regent University Paid 7
Purdue Global University Paid 8
CSU Global Paid 9
Trident University Paid 10
International Business University of Louisville Paid 1
Norwich University Paid 2
Western Governors University Paid 3
Southern New Hampshire University Organic 4
Berkeley College Organic 5
Florida International University Organic 6
Virginia Wesleyan University Paid 7
Grand Canyon University Paid 8
Rasmussen University Paid 9
University of Southern Indiana Paid 10
Marketing Full Sail University Paid 1
William Paterson University Paid 2
Regent University Paid 3
Northern Kentucky University Paid 4
Arizona State University Online Organic 5
Southern New Hampshire University Organic 6
Western Governors University Organic 7
Penn State World Campus Organic 8
Florida International University Organic 9
Strayer University Paid 10


When I reviewed the universities listed in the top 10 for each of the 8 categories, I noticed the following frequency:

University Frequency
Southern New Hampshire University 7 times
Western Governors University 7 times
Purdue University Global 4 times
University of Louisville 4 times
University of Phoenix 4 times
Arizona State University Online 3 times
Regent University 3 times
Strayer University 3 times
American Public University 2 times
DeVry University 2 times
Florida International University 2 times
Maryville University 2 times
Northern Kentucky University 2 times
UNC Greensboro 2 times
Virginia Wesleyan University 2 times
Berkeley College 1 time
Capella University 1 time
Carlow University 1 time
Drexel University Online 1 time
Franklin University 1 time
Full Sail University 1 time
Grand Canyon University 1 time
Johns Hopkins University 1 time
Johnson & Wales University 1 time
Keiser University 1 time
Lamar University 1 time
Louisiana State University 1 time
Northwest Missouri State University 1 time
Norwich University 1 time
Oregon State University 1 time
Penn State World Campus 1 time
Pepperdine University 1 time
Post University 1 time
Rasmussen University 1 time
Trident University 1 time
University of Arizona Global 1 time
University of Cincinnati 1 time
University of Florida 1 time
University of Maryland Global 1 time
University of Southern Indiana 1 time
University of Texas San Antonio 1 time
University of Toledo 1 time
Walden University 1 time
William Paterson University 1 time

While it’s not surprising that 44 colleges and universities dominated the 80 search results (8 categories times 10), I noted that 8 universities were present in 3 or more categories and were listed in 35 of the 80 search results. I’m sure if I conducted a similar analysis on the other high demand undergraduate program areas (health professions, social sciences, engineering, biological sciences, and psychology), I would find similar results.

While I only chose to conduct this limited research on online business-related degrees, I’m hoping that it makes a point that seems to be ignored when many college presidents and provosts are quoted as stating that there is a great opportunity for adding online students. It will not be easy. I found a source for the list below of the universities enrolling 20,000 or more online undergraduate students (there are 14). I note that the enrollment numbers are based on FTE calculations as submitted to the Department of Education so institutions with larger concentrations of part-time students may have as many as twice the number of students enrolled then are listed.


Ranking of undergraduate online enrollments

Most, but not all, of these institutions surfaced in my review of online bachelor’s degrees in business (probably because Austin, Texas is not an area that some of them choose to select for online paid search terms). It is difficult and expensive to market online degree programs through paid search. The top five institutions on this list appear to dominate the television air waves with ads as well. All these institutions with more than 20,000 online students spend a lot of money marketing their online degrees. The fact that only 44 institutions surfaced in my top 10 list for 8 business categories is one indicator. Even more, only 8 of them occupied 35 of the 80 search results. Most working adults will only click on a few options. Some of these institutions have admissions call centers ready to respond to a click for information 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The first college to respond with the information that the student is looking for including financial aid funding options may likely convert the inquiry to an admission.

If I were a college president looking to market my online degrees for the first time ever, I’d geo-fence them for a 100-mile radius from my institution (or within the zip codes from which I currently draw students) to test the effectiveness of my ads and my institution’s response time to prospective student inquiries. If that initiative is successful, I would slowly expand it based on whatever information my marketing team or consultants deem appropriate for the enrollment expansion. The institutions on the top 14 list have been focusing on attracting and educating online students for decades. Don’t think it will be easy to add a couple of thousand online students. The battle for market share is intense at the top, and the number of working adults who are willing to return to school for degrees are likely already enrolled. You’ll have to convince them to leave their institution to enroll at your institution. Good luck.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence